Why the Pirates Stink

Twitter giveback week continues. This time it’s Evan Lynch wanting to see a breakdown of what separates the 2006 Detroit Tigers and 2008 Tampa Bay Rays turnaround from a franchise in perpetual downtime: the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1993.

There are so many different ways to attack the following comparison. Here’s the best breakdown I could come up with. In formula form: young talent + asset assessment = talent evaluation. Let’s take a look at the changes for the 2006 Tigers and the 2008  Tampa Bay Rays in particular.

Without going into too much depth, the main difference for those teams was an influx of impactful young talent.

The Tigers replaced Nook Logan with Curtis Granderson. They bolstered their pen with the promotion of Joel Zumaya. Justin Verlander replaced Jason Johnson. The Rays, meanwhile, added Evan Longoria. They added Matt Garza. They later added David Price to the pen, but before that, they added J.P. Howell to it, and watched as he sparkled all season long. Yes, a mixture of blasé veterans helped too, but you know what the big bullpen additions were for either team that didn’t come from within? Todd Jones, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler. The big positional player additions were Jason Bartlett, Eric Hinske, and uh … well that’s about it.

Between 1993 and 2000, the Pirates most successful prospect was probably Kris Benson. Between 2002 and 2006 their top prospects (per Baseball America) were Chad Hermansen, J.R. House, John Van Benschoten, and Zack Duke. Only one of those is still with the Pirates and I’m not even sure if the rest are still in baseball. Things have gotten better lately. Andrew McCutchen looks like a star on the rise, and Pedro Alvarez should turn into a mighty fine player. Brad Lincoln won’t become an ace, but if he becomes a three, really just a three, year in and year for the next five-to-six seasons then he’ll become one of the franchise’s best pitchers since 2000. Really.

Why have things been this bad? Because they were downright awful at drafting. Here are the top draft picks for the Pirates in every draft since 1990 and in parenthesis, the players (and when they were selected) who produced more than 1 WAR throughout their careers.

1990: Kurt Miller (Kevin Young, their seventh round pick, and Brian Shouse in round 13.)
1991: Jon Farrell (Only Dustin Hermanson from round 39 and Tony Womack from round seven.)
1992: Jason Kendall (Marc Wilkins win round 47 is the only other player besides Kendall.)
1993: Charles Peterson (Chris Peters from round 37.)
1994: Mark Farris (Nobody.)
1995: Chad Hermansen (Bronson Arroyo from round three.)
1996: Kris Benson (Mike Gonzalez in round 17, Rob Mackowiak in round 53, Willie Harris from the 28th round, and Tike Redman from the fifth.)
1997: J.J. Davis (Mike Gonzalez drafted again and John Grabow from round three.)
1998: Clint Johnston (Joe Beimel from the 18th.)
1999: Bobby Bradley (Ryan Doumit from the second.)
2000: Sean Burnett (Chris Young from the third, Nate McLouth from the 25th, and Ian Snell from the 26th.)
2001: John Van Benschoten (Jeremy Guthrie from the third, Zach Duke from the 20th, Stephen Drew from the 11th who didn’t sign, Rajai Davis from the 38th, Chris Shelton from the 33rd, and Chris Duffy from the eighth.)
2002: Bryan Bullington (Nyjer Morgan in round 33 and Matt Capps in round seven.)
2003: Paul Maholm (Alongside Tom Gorzelanny from round two.)
2004: Neil Walker (Nobody.)
2005: Andrew McCutchen (Nobody else.)
2006: Brad Lincoln (Nobody.)
2007: Daniel Moskos (Nobody.)
2008: Pedro Alvarez (Nobody.)

That would be 19 drafts with five of them pulling in zero players worth 1 or more WAR in their major league careers. Including supplemental picks, the Pirates had 22 first round picks during that span and only three produced more than 5 WAR (McCutchen is well on his way). Their average draft position without supplemental picks during that span is 10.3, and that is because they picked 24th, 23rd, and 22nd from 1991 through 1993. If you take it from 1994 onward it’s 8.1. That is 15 drafts, an average pick of 8th, and two real contributors chosen.

It’s no secret the Rays picked high too, but here’s their tally of 1+ WAR players in each draft through 2008:

1996 – 3
1997 – 2
1998 – 3
1999 – 4
2000 – 2
2001 – 4
2002 – 4
2003 – 0
2004 – 1 (although Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Andy Sonnanstine, and Fernando Perez could slip over soon.)
2005 – 0
2006 – 1
2007 – 1
2008 – 0

That is 13 drafts and 25 players produced versus 19 drafts and 29 players produced. Meanwhile the Tigers produced 29 players between 1990 and 2002 alone. Simply put, the Pirates haven’t had a great wave of young talent to promote through the system until … well, now. When you’re a small-to-mid market team incapable of producing your own superstars despite consistently high draft status then you won’t be able to compete in this league. Develop the studs; acquire the role players for below market value is generally a good rule of thumb.

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12 years ago

How can we be sure how much of the inability to succeed is poor drafting and how much is poor development?

When the organization’s draft pics end up being busts time after time, one would think the drafting was incompetent bordering on lunatic OR that the development bears much of the blame. In other words, what I’m getting at is perhaps the Pirate’s didn’t draft poorly as much as develop poorly.

12 years ago
Reply to  Heather

I’m sure there’s some truth to that Heather, but as a Pirate fan I think blame falls mostly on the “bad picks” side of the ledger. Bullington was chosen #1 overall ahead of consensus #1 pick BJ Upton. Moskos was chosen over Matt Wieters. Van Benschoten was a top college hitter and the Pirates wanted him to pitch.

Outside of the first round, the Dave Littlefield years were characterized by a lot of college seniors drafted to stock the minor leagues with organizational guys who could win minor league games but weren’t likely to become MLB regulars. This gave the system the veneer of competence to anyone unable to tell the difference (ie: Pirates ownership under Kevin McClatchy) but in reality the team was just spinning their wheels.

12 years ago
Reply to  gorillagogo

I agree with gorilla that some of that probably does exist, but more so with non-1st round picks. The problem of course is that many of the Pirates’ picks are driven by signability so they would forgo better players to ensure they could sign the lesser one. That’s a big factor here, too.

I’m not a prospect maven by any stretch of the imagination but over the years I would look at the Pirates and just think, WTF? And I’m talking about on draft day when we still don’t really have a clue about these guys, but it just seemed like they were drafting from a completely different list.

We all have a Pirates in our fantasy league and guess what? Like they Pirates, the routinely finish at the bottom of the league because they are drafting like crap.

Great piece RJ, it’s all in the player development for a team like Pirates. Always has been, always will be. I like what Huntington is doing there right now and I think if they can develop some pitching, they can start down the road to respectability.

12 years ago
Reply to  Heather

Every year I always look at some of the obvious first round selections they could have made. For instance if they would have selected Weiters in ’07, they wouldn’t have stretched for a much larger developmental project in Tony Sanchez for ’09.

Too many of their picks have relied on fans expecting a player to develop beyond reasonable expectations. Sanchez should be a decent regular, but we can’t expect him to produce as a typical top five selection. Lincoln is the perfect example. You can develop the heck out of him, but it won’t change the fact that he’ll never be more than a 4 starter. For the most part those are the types of players they had been focusing on. The Pirates were over shooting most of those picks.

I think Stetson Allie would be the perfect benchmark in evaluating their player development. He’s a very high ceiling very low floor type of pitcher. With great development he could be a top of the rotation kind of guy. With poor development he might barely make it as a situational reliever.